NASCAR NOTEBOOK: Austin Hill gains momentum entering Playoffs with Michigan win

NASCAR NOTEBOOK: Austin Hill gains momentum entering Playoffs with Michigan win
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BROOKLYN, Mich.—Austin Hill might get a Christmas card from Matt Crafton after all.

Hill’s victory in the Corrigan Oil 200 at Michigan International Speedway automatically advanced Crafton into the 2019 Gander Outdoors Truck Playoffs.

The No. 16 Hino/Aisin Toyota took the lead for the third and final time on the Lap 96 restart. Hill held on through the eighth and final caution and held off Sheldon Creed by .125-seconds at the line for his second win of the season.

“Oh man, such a relief,” Hill said after scoring his first Michigan win and advancing to the Playoffs. “We have had a struggle these last few races. We just keep having issues and just can’t finish these races. These guys just worked their tails off, day and night, just trying to put these trucks together. This is actually a brand-new truck. First time it had seen the race track was yesterday.

“When we unloaded, we had to work out some bugs. We got it driving really good. I was really happy with the speed of it. Man, this race was crazy. I had to come from the back a few times. I had a speeding penalty one time, and I kind of thought our race was done, but man we came back through the field. This Toyota Tundra was really good today.”

Tyler Dippel, Brett Moffitt, Austin Wayne Self, Bayley Currey, Grant Enfinger, Stewart Friesen, Ray Ciccarelli and Crafton rounded out the top 10.

Crafton, the 2013-2014 truck champion, was forced to start at the rear of the 32-truck field following an engine change. He raced his way into the top 10 by the end of Stage 1—which was won by polesitter Ross Chastain, who led the first 23 laps before Codie Rohrbaugh spun into the No. 45 Chevy on pit road. Despite multiple attempts to repair Chastain’s truck, his race ended after 26 laps and he finished 30th.

NASCAR declared Enfinger the regular season champion prior to the second segment.

“That’s huge,” said Enfinger, who now holds a 51-point advantage over Moffitt. “That’s a big feather in our cap. It doesn’t make us comfortable entering this first round by any means. I think (the points) are still pretty tight. But it’s better than where we were running last year and it puts us in a manageable position. We can go to Bristol and run our race.”

Ben Rhodes took the lead out of the pits and remained at the point for nine laps before Christian Eckes spun in Turn 2 while running sixth on Lap 33. Enfinger and Hill traded places at the front before Moffitt took the lead on Lap 38 and held on for the Stage 2 win.

Five additional cautions slowed down the final 65 laps. Cory Roper slapped the right rear of his truck coming off of Turn 2 on Lap 58. Hill was busted for speeding on pit road on the same lap.

Moffit took the lead from Rhodes—who was in a must-win situation entering the race. The first of multiple tire issues for the No. 99 ThorSport Ford occurred on Lap 75 while Rhodes was running second. He dropped to 25th then pitted again with another right front tire issue. The second failure dropped Rhodes to 27th, three laps down and eliminated any hope of advancing to the Playoffs. He finished 23rd and ended up ninth in the standings, one position short.

After multiple spins by Eckes in Turn 2, the field lined up to decide the contest with four laps remaining. Crafton lined up behind Tyler Ankrum, who stalled on the restart and was punted by the No. 88 Ford. The contact triggered a nine-truck wreck on the frontstretch. Crafton was apologetic.

“We had a phenomenal restart before that,” Crafton said. “I shoved Tyler out to the lead, but I think he spun his tires just a little bit when I got to him. I was trying to help him. There was nothing ill-intended.

“When all three, the 18 (Burton), the 4 (Gilliland) and the 99 (Rhodes)… when all those guys are 1-2-3 at one point, I’m like, ‘I better get up on the saddle and dig. I was definitely doing everything I could to shuffle them out.”

With 22 trucks remaining, Hill led the field to green in overtime with Moffitt alongside and Crafton and Harrison Burton behind. Creed, who restarted sixth, had an amazing restart and vaulted to second. He trailed Hill by .326-seconds coming to the white flag but the No. 16 held on for the win.

“Man, I definitely did not want to do a green-white-checkered,” Hill said. “I was cutting it kind of close on fuel. I got a really good push out back by the 18 (Harrison Burton) that kind of propelled us and cleared us out front. I just had to start throwing blocks. Luckily, they started racing two and three-wide out the back. They gave us a gap out front and we were able to keep that gap.

“I thought the 2 (Sheldon Creed) was going to have a shot at it going into three, he had a really big run, but I was able to protect the bottom. Our Toyota Tundra was really fast today.”

Although Hill drives for the defending truck championship team, this is his first year in the Playoffs. After Saturday’s win, Hill can’t wait to get to Bristol.

“Man, I am ready for it, especially what we did today,” Hill said. “We are still one of the top teams. We are really fast. We just had to get this monkey off our back. It has been bad, so to get it off our back is awesome. Can’t thank TRD enough for all those guys for what they do for me.”

 

Cup practice portends to a wild and crazy Consumers Energy 400

Drafting was the name of the game during practice for Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup race at Michigan.

Kevin Harvick topped the speed chart in first practice with a lap of 190.501mph in a session that resembled drafting at Daytona more so than Michigan.

"Track position still trumps the speed in the cars, because you have to position yourself correctly,” Harvick said. “In the swarm, you kind of have to just maintain and try not to put yourself in a bad position to lose a bunch of spots. Once they get singled out, you can start to use the speed of the car to really navigate ‘em one by one.

“So it’s definitely an interesting practice. I wish that PJ1 was a little further down. We’d already have that third groove run in. I saw the 42 and the 6 and couple of cars up there running in it. We really need that groove to be there (Sunday) to give everybody three choices instead of two… It looks like right now it needs to come down about three or four feet."  

Harvick, the defending winner of this race, starts second in Sunday’s Consumer Energy 400—alongside polesitter—and local favorite Brad Keselowski.

Erik Jones, a fellow Michigander, led Happy Hour with a speed of 189.843 mph. The driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota concentrated on getting the right balance for his car during the final hour of practice because passing will be at a premium. Jones believes that side-drafting will be key to making up ground.

“It’s going to be aggressive,” Jones said. “You are going to be trying to make big moves with it. It’s going to be tough. You see the aggression every week of guys trying to get up there and side draft hard, but it’s what it takes.

“You are also going to see the big run from that too. If two guys get side drafting and slow down, probably the guy behind is going to make that run and try to pass them both. It’s a tough spot. You have to be aggressive. You got to use it, but you have to kind of guard yourself from the guy getting a run from behind you.”

Thirty-three minutes into Happy Hour, Daniel Suarez got loose in Turn 2 after his left rear tire was punctured. Suarez kissed the wall with the right rear of the No. 41 Arris Ford and was forced to pit for the team to change the tire and assess the damage.

“I was a little confused because the car was free, I knew the car was free but the way I got loose in Turn 2 wasn’t normal,” said Suarez who was fifth quick after 27 laps. “Hopefully, we’ll get a little bit of a break and they can fix it.”

After a short caution, the track returned to green with 11 minutes remaining in the session. Jones was fastest with a lap of 188.843mph followed by Alex Bowman, Harvick, Austin Dillon and Suarez.

Bowman was very pleased with the speed of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

“We’ve had good speed since we’ve unloaded and good stability,” Bowman said. “That first run, in final practice, we were really strong. We kind of waited a little bit to try to get with a pack for the end of practice. We just got too tight there at the end. We made some adjustments and got the car on the splitter pretty badly. We’ll undo that and go racing.”

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